All of the Elements for a Backyard Oasis

Sometimes the best place to vacation is your own backyard. Check out these handy tips to glam up your yard and add sizzle to your summer.

Kevin Obee is selling a lot of outdoor fixtures these days.

“When the pandemic hit, and people were stuck at home, a lot of them wanted a change,” says Obee, general sales manager at Benson Stone Co., a Rockford shopping destination that sells landscaping materials, barbecue grills, furniture, fireplaces and more. “We’re seeing a lot of people wanting to expand their homes, but instead of adding on a room, they’re adding one outside.”

While the world is emerging from the pandemic, the trend of creating your own backyard paradise is still going strong.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in water features, firepits, paving stones – anything that’s going to make the yard more comfortable,” says Obee.

Whether it’s a quick spruce-up or a major landscaping project, turning your backyard into a personal haven can create real dividends for relaxation, real estate and receptions with friends and family.

Here are a few ways that you can turn your yard into a personal destination.

Get Some Greenery

A backyard without plants is really just a back lot. Gardens, flowers, trees, shrubs and grass do more than make a place look pretty. Trees provide cooling shade and a home for songbirds. Shrubs and hedges define property lines and offer privacy. Flowering plants can perfume the air while lawn grasses lower surrounding temperatures. A carefully created and curated backyard will become its own ecosystem, giving your home a completely different environment to escape to.

Scott Gensler is co-owner of Gensler Gardens, a family-owned greenhouse and garden center that has been part of the Rockford landscape since 1981. He recommends starting a project with trees and shrubs to set up a blueprint of what your yard will eventually look like.

“Remember that, when you’re planting trees, you’re planting for the future,” says Gensler. “Certain trees will reach full growth in six to eight years. Others might take 30 years.”

While it might seem tempting to plant trees that will reach full height in just a few years, Gensler points out that slower-growing trees tend to be worth the wait.

“A consumer might not be aware of the potential of a slower grower, but they’re probably planting a superior tree,” he says. “The slower a tree grows, the stronger it tends to be.”

With flowering plants, it’s important to consider when they’re going to bloom and how long they’re going to live. Perennials, which regrow every spring, tend to have a few short blooming periods, as opposed to annuals, which will bloom throughout the season and then die off in the cold weather.

“It’s important to make sure you have some plants that bloom in the spring, some that bloom in summer and some that bloom in fall,” says Gensler. “That way you’ll have color year-round.”

The advantage to annuals is that they can instantly add color to your yard. And, since they have a longer bloom season than perennials, that color will last throughout the season. Generally brighter and snazzier than perennials, annuals are often used by gardeners to give a bit of zip to a flower bed, while the more stoic perennials even out the aesthetic.

“Annuals are going to give you color from a week to two weeks after you plant, all the way until the first freeze of the year,” says Gensler.

When it comes to flower type, Gensler is quick to recommend sunpatiens, a hardy type of impatiens that can go almost anywhere.

“Sunpatiens are my favorite type of plant,” says Gensler. “They can thrive in full sun, or they can thrive in the shade. Their flower power is pretty spectacular.”

Gensler is also a big fan of the begonia family.

“‘Whopper’ begonias are a 30-inch-tall plant, as opposed to other begonias, which are 8 to 12 inches,” he says. “They look great after a week to 10 days of planting, right up until they freeze.”

Another, larger member of the begonia family is the “top hat” variety, which typically grows to between 15 and 18 inches. Gensler likes to use the two types of begonias together.

“I’ll use the whoppers as a backdrop and put the top hats as a border in front,” he says. “It looks like two colorful hedges, but it’s all flower. It really looks great.”

One important consideration, when choosing plants, is how they will react to temperatures. When planting for the warmer months, Gensler favors plants that love the heat, like vincas, a free-flowing flower that bears a resemblance to impatiens but thrives more in the sun. Plants that prefer a cooler temperature include pansies, violas or alicias, which will thrive in early March but might start to wilt in the heat of June or July.

“A lot of people will do a seasonal changeup,” says Gensler. “They’ll use cooler-weather plants in the spring, followed by heat lovers in the summer.”

Another important decision that needs to be made is whether to plant in containers or in-ground beds.

“I’m willing to bet that two-thirds of the plants that we sell go into containers or baskets,” says Gensler. “You have to water more, but it’s a popular way to create a beautiful space.”

Gensler points out, however, that when it comes to containers and other fixtures, supply chain issues might complicate your timeline this year because quantities of certain plants and containers are more limited than in the past.

“It depends on what your preference is, but it’s not an instant gratification like it was a few years ago,” he says.

Unilock photo

Find Your Fixtures

The perfect backyard is more than just a collection of plants. It’s a combination of natural elements, furnishings and decor designed to elevate your property through beauty and relaxation. Form is important, but so is function.

For many area homeowners, a backyard makeover begins with a trip to Benson Stone Co. The popular landscaping and home decor company is a one-stop shop for backyard beauty, carrying furnishings and features as well as professional-grade landscaping materials like paving stones, gravel, wood chips, retaining walls, lighting and everything needed for outdoor kitchens, firepits and water features.

The staff’s deep knowledge of landscaping makes them a vital resource for professional contractors in the region, as well as DIY enthusiasts who are looking for advice. Benson Stone has supplied the materials for several public sites in the area, including Nicholas Conservatory in Rockford.

Kevin Obee, general sales manager with Benson Stone, uses his expertise to stay on top of the latest backyard trends. For many of his customers, fire is a hot commodity this year.

“We’ve definitely seen a lot more of the gas fire fixtures recently,” he says. “Wood burning is still an option, but gas is much cleaner and more convenient, since you can turn it on with a switch or remote control.”

Obee is also seeing more fireplaces than fire pits.

“We’re seeing outdoor structures with a roof, where the only wall is the fireplace wall,” he says. “A fireplace is a nice option because it’s linear and you can place it along a wall or place it in the middle of your space as a centerpiece.”

Water features are also a popular complement, with fountains, waterfalls, ponds, creeks or even outdoor showers providing a tranquil and ambient environment. Nature lovers might want to install a koi pond or, as a lower-maintenance option, a bird bath. With all water features, however, it’s important to make sure components are properly dried and stored during the winter months, to prevent freezing and breakage.

Perhaps the biggest surge Obee has seen in backyard landscaping is adding a kitchen.

“There has been a huge increase in outdoor kitchens,” he says. Benson Stone has the capability to design and install outdoor kitchens and counters, and the firm carries a wide variety of quality grills and cooking equipment – the centerpiece to any such space.

“Even if you just have a grill, you have an outdoor kitchen,” he says. “With a decent gas grill, you can cook multiple times per week in your yard, and the food is going to taste better than if you cook it inside.”

Obee stresses, however, that avid grillers shouldn’t settle for less than high-quality equipment.
“There is a huge difference between the way food tastes off a basic grill and a really good grill,” he says. “If you spend a little bit more on your grill, you’ll end up with something high-quality that will last a lifetime.”

Obee also advises taking the time to plan for major landscaping projects. Don’t be afraid to seek solid consultation.

“Find a very good landscape architect and a contractor,” he says. “We supply landscape materials, and we design, fabricate and install kitchens and fire features. We also work with a lot of great contractors who will do the job right.

Explore Electronics

For many, a beautiful backyard is more than just a private escape. It’s also the perfect place to host a fete for friends and family, making outdoor entertainment systems something to consider.

Keegan West has been serving home entertainment enthusiasts for over a decade as a custom designer and sales representative for Primetime Audio/Video, in Rockford. As a specialist who creates custom outdoor sound systems, he recommends exploring the many options available before settling on the right one for you.

“If you want something very basic, there are portable Bluetooth speakers that are designed to go outside and get rained on, and there’s no installation,” he says. “Most people opt for outdoor speakers, mounted on their house and controlled with their phone.”

Real technophiles may want to opt for a landscape system, which can get very sophisticated.
“The speakers go in your mulch bed, and subwoofers can go under the deck,” says West.

“Everything lives at ground level, and instead of two big speakers hanging off your house, there areup to eight speakers that offer better coverage with a more subtle install solution.”

For a system like this, Primetime will work directly with the landscape contractor for the best placement and wire lay. The company is also experienced with installing systems in completed yards. One of the benefits of a strategically placed speaker system is that sound can be directed toward the house for a crisp, more isolated sound.

“You can listen a bit louder without disturbing your neighbors,” says West.

For film and TV buffs, outdoor televisions are becoming all the rage, especially when homeowners found themselves locked down in quarantine.

“Ever since the pandemic, our outdoor business has tripled or quadrupled,” says West. “Outdoor TVs used to be very specialized, but these days Samsung and other companies are starting to buy in.”

Installing an outdoor TV is as simple as mounting it on an outer wall, plugging it in and connecting it to Wi-Fi. Most TVs have streaming apps already installed, making it easy to get connected to your favorite movie, show or event. “You literally just plug them in, and you’re good to go,” says West.

Primetime also has the ability to connect everything with a home automation system, enabling homeowners control over water features, fire features, lights and electronics with a touch of a button.

“We can take everything in your yard and have it all controlled with the same app,” says West. “It’s perfect if you want to have different settings, like for a movie night or to set a mood or tone.”

Homeowners who are interested in wiring their yard for sound, TV and more just need to pop in for advice and options.

“Most people come to us with a photo of their yard and tell us what they want,” says West. “We can help you find what you need at almost any price point.”

Get Planning

For many, the summer months are a time to relax and unwind. While booking a vacation and getting away from it all is always an option, sometimes changing the scenery and enjoying an exotic locale can be as simple as stepping outside. There’s no need to go through the hassle of packing a car or booking plane tickets when you can find the perfect escape right in your own backyard.